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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

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The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

selected and edited by Ronald de Leeuw,
translated by Arnold Pomerans.
Penguin/Allen Lane, 560 pages, $32.95.

If Van Gogh had never become the painter that he was, he might well be remembered as one of the greatest of nineteenth-century letter writers. His letters were copious as well as brilliant, amounting in one edition to four volumes, and from this mass of material Mr. de Leeuw has selected a progression of those that chronicle the artist's zigzag path, of failed jobs, futile enterprises, and impractical schemes, to suicide and greatness. Most of the letters were to Theo, the brother who supported Van Gogh through years of poverty and unsold pictures. The letters cover a wide spectrum of ideas, literary references, experiences, and locations. They have engaging flashes of humor: on his arrival in Arles, Van Gogh observed "the priest in his surplice, who resembles a dangerous rhinoceros." The painter had long since recovered from a bout of religious fervor during which his sister described him as "groggy with piety." There are sharp accounts of his difficult relations with his parents. On one visit home, broke and shabby as usual, he wrote that the Reverend van Gogh and his wife "shrink from taking me into the house as they might from taking in a large shaggy dog who is sure to come into the room with wet paws" and "could easily bite -- he could easily become rabid -- and the village policeman would have to come round and shoot him." His descriptions of scenery are enchanting evocations of shape and color. The late letters from Arles, concerning his recurring bouts of irrational behavior, are impressive and saddening in their cool analysis of what he had come to recognize as an illness producing anguish and terror, but "now that it has all been abating for 5 months I have high hopes of getting over it."That was in May of 1889. By September he had "abandoned any hope that it won't come back." His last letter to Theo raised, once again, the idealistic dream of a painters' cooperative to thwart the machinations of dealers, and included an order for paint and a description of his latest canvas. It is dated July 24, 1890. He shot himself on July 27 and died two days later. Mr. de Leeuw's choice of letters and his editorial additions are admirable. He fills in the inevitable gaps, lifts pertinent quotations from omitted letters, and discreetly reminds the reader that Van Gogh's account of events is strictly his own, not necessarily shared by other participants. As a young apprentice to a London art dealer, Van Gogh had advised little brother Theo, "Keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better & better. Painters understand nature & love her & teach us to see. "Vincent van Gogh has taught a lot of us to see. His letters, and Mr. de Leeuw's superb editing, permit us to see him.

Bound Feet and Western Dress

by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang.
Doubleday, 215 pages, $22.95.

Ms. Chang is an American of Chinese ancestry -- a combination that led her to feel as a young woman that she inhabited a cultural limbo. To combat that sense of rootlessness, she investigated her Chinese inheritance through the memories of her great-aunt, Chang Yu-i, whose story constitutes this book. It is a story of progress from the old China to Europe, to a prosperous teaching and business career in the new China of the 1920s, to Hong Kong to escape the Communist revolution, and finally to the United States, where Yu-i's son was well established. Through all these experiences, which included an unsuitable arranged marriage to a poet who left her stranded in England, Yu-i retained and practiced the traditional Chang values of family loyalty and service to senior relatives, including the parents of the husband she divorced. Her life is an impressive record of adaptability on the one hand and stubborn adherence to principle on the other. Her feet, by the way, were not bound, and she never felt comfortable in Western dress.


by John T. Spike.
Abbeville, 245 pages, $95.00.

The Florentine painter Maso di ser Giovanni, called Masaccio, was born in 1401 and died in 1428. During his short career he produced a large body of work and introduced such novelties as feet set solidly on the ground and faces individualized to the verge of caricature. He wasted no time on writing artistic manifestos, and if he ever talked about his painting, nobody recorded what he said. Mr. Spike therefore has nothing to go on concerning Masaccio's ideas beyond intelligent conjecture, which he exercises with restraint. What this beautifully illustrated book does provide is sound description and analysis of the frescoes with which Masaccio moved painting from medieval, iconic formality to the action and realism of the Renaissance.

The Handmaid of Desire

by John L'Heureux.
Soho, 264 pages, $23.00.

Mr. L'Heureux writes with amusing liveliness and a sharp eye for human folly, but this latest novel is lopsided, because it contains not a single Houyhnhnm to contrast with a population of academic Yahoos. These range from the merely boring to the despicable. Olga, the handmaid of the title, is an exotic literary type imported to enliven a semi-stagnant, intrigue-ridden English department at a California university that, one gathers, it would be inadvisable to attend. Once installed, Olga slyly encourages the resident faculty members to do what they really want to do, either sexually or professionally. There is no reason to expect improvement from the ensuing upheavals. Perhaps the best way to view this coldly savage work is to see Olga as an illustration of the fiction writer's mind in action, reordering reality to an imagined pattern by a merciless conversion of people into puppets.

Free City

by Eric Darton.
Norton, 176 pages, $18.00.

The free city of Mr. Darton's satirical fantasy appears to lie somewhere in the Low Countries in the late seventeenth century, and his narrator is a somewhat rattle-witted scientist who has just "foundered on the unforgiving shoals of chemistry." (Translation -- he blew off the tip of his finger.) His rich friend and patron, Roberto, has taught a duck to speak. Roberto has political ambitions, which he pursues by means of both duck and scientist. Roberto represents capitalism; the narrator represents technology; the duck appears to represent both ethical responsibility and disinterested scholarship. Although the narrator's pseudo-archaic prose is sometimes a bit exasperating, the parable of embattled humanism versus amoral financial greed has both bite and humor. The defective mechanical dragon is particularly effective.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 121-122.

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